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Dangers of Synthetic Cannabinoids

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Synthetic cannabinoids are lab-made compounds that mimic the effects of THC, the main psychotropic ingredient in marijuana. The idea of a synthetic cannabinoid sounds harmless enough, as naturally produced cannabinoids from the cannabis plant are deemed relatively safe and have even potential health effects.

For example, there's some evidence that CBD may support sleep quality, muscle soreness, and feelings of nervousness [1]. However, these unregulated synthetic designer drugs are causing life-threatening damage, such as seizures, kidney damage, and even death.

Synthetic cannabinoids are typically sprayed on dried plants or herbs which can then be smoked or ingested. 

Synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as herbal incense with names like "K2" or "Spice" and are labeled "not for human consumption," so these dangerous psychoactive substances often get overlooked by the FDA.

These substances have become increasingly popular among teens who mistakenly believe they're safe because they're sold over-the-counter at gas stations, head shops, convenience stores, and online [2].

Let's discuss some of the dangers and the effects of synthetic cannabinoids, and how you can avoid accidentally purchasing a designer drug.

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice, K2, and Black Mamba are packaged and labeled as "natural" or "herbal" products, but consumers understand them to be "fake weed," or a "legal" route to experience the psychotropic high from marijuana use without containing any traces of THC.

The most dangerous aspect about these products is that you don't know what's in them. 

They come in a dried plant material, such as hemp (which is federally legal) that's then sprayed with chemical compounds to produce mind-altering effects when smoked.

When smoked, the K2/spice mimics the effects of THC, which is the main psychoactive constituent in cannabis. However, the adverse effects can be deadly. These side effects include everything from nausea and vomiting all the way up to hallucinations, psychotic episodes, seizures, and death.

Why Was K2/Spice Made?

The popularity of using synthetic cannabinoids was on a rise in the early 2000s, as a means to get around the illegal recreational use of marijuana.

The synthetic pot goes by several synonyms like Fake Weed, Yucatan Fire, Bliss, Blaze, Skunk, and Moon Rocks. Many times the product name will have numerical suffixes. The most common variations of this product are called "Spice" or "K2."

How Does K2/Spice Work?

Synthetic cannabinoids are made in clandestine laboratories to mimic the effects of natural cannabis. These man-made compounds act on the same receptors as THC, creating similar psychoactive and physical reactions.

The chemicals used in synthetic cannabinoids vary widely depending upon what effect is desired or available chemical precursors allow them, which makes them even more dangerous than regular marijuana as they're wildly unpredictable.

The cannabinoid compounds found in these synthetic agents bind on the same cell receptors as those affected by naturally-derived THC in marijuana [3]. Some of the compounds used in K2 include:

  • HU-210
  • JWH-073
  • CP 47,497 and homologs
  • JWH-018
  • JWH-250
  • Oleamide
  • JWH-398

What makes these products so potent is that many times, synthesized compounds can bind more strongly to THC receptors than marijuana. In some cases, synthesized compounds are 100 times more potent than the average THC found in pot. And while this can create a euphoric 'high', it can also have unpredictable or dangerous effects, such as extreme anxiety and paranoia.

What's worse is that, as with many other illegal designer drugs, the chemical makeup of synthetic marijuana may be combined with other toxic chemicals. For instance, in 2018, reports surfaced of synthetic cannabinoids being laced with fentanyl in Connecticut [4].

Needless to say, chemicals present in artificial marijuana increase the risk of addiction, abuse, and side effects without providing any medical benefit.

Many of these active chemicals are considered Schedule I controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It makes it illegal to sell, buy, or carry them.

What Are The Effects Of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Since synthetic cannabinoids are designed to be more potent in the brain than natural cannabinoids, some of their possible effects include:

  • Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Giggles
  • Increase in appetite
  • Extroversion

However, they can also cause loss of coordination, changes in perception, paranoia, forgetfulness, and panic attacks.

The main reason these synthetic cannabinoids came onto the market is the growing interest in marijuana's recreational high to support relaxation and social lubrication, but it remains federally illegal.

What Are The Risks Of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

The problem with synthetic cannabinoids drug is that we don't know what's in them. Since they're not labeled for consumption, these manufacturers don't have to indicate the active ingredients or follow FDA guidelines.

Synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to an increased number of ER visits every year since 2010. The DEA has put a ban on five specific synthetic cannabinoids but it is estimated that over 100 more could exist for recreational use.

Physical Risks Associated With Synthetic Cannabinoid Products

Many of the physical risks associated with these products are also common with tobacco and marijuana smoking.

However, the increased potency of synthetic 'cannabis' can exacerbate these risks, to the point where there have been several deaths that have been associated with the use of synthetic cannabinoids. Other reported side-effects include:

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, and confusion
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Feelings of excitement, agitation, and aggression
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Memory problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Hot flushes
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Numbness in joints and muscles
  • Tremors, seizures, and fits [5]

Mental Health Effects Of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Because of the powerful chemicals used in their composition, synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to cause hallucinations and psychotic episodes.

Continued use of synthetic cannabinoids may also cause a relapse of mental illnesses or increase the risk of developing one. This is especially true for users that have a family history of mental illness, and drug and alcohol use.

Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Addictive?

It's possible to become dependant on synthetic cannabinoids, especially with regular consumption. The risk of drug dependency lies on several factors, including:

  • How long you've been using it
  • How much you use
  • Family history with drug abuse

How Long Do The Effects Of K2 Last?

K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids last roughly four to eight hours in your system. But because of its potency, K2 can kick in fast, as quick as five minutes. However, it depends on how much you’ve taken, and what other drugs you may also use.

Fake marijuana can stay in the body for more than a month. The metabolites are primarily stored in fatty tissues. Half the amount is excreted in 40 days, while the other half takes its time to be eliminated—this is known as the compound's half-life [6].

How Do People Use Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are meant to mimic the effects of marijuana and are used in very similar ways. Some people roll the herb into a joint, mix it with tobacco, or it can be found in vape/e-cigarette products.

Since they are also available in powdered form, synthetic cannabinoids can also be swallowed, or consumed with food or drinks.

Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Legal?

Synthetic cannabinoids are illegal. When they first appeared on the market, they contained substances that weren't banned by state or federal drug laws, because its dangers were unknown. But that is now changing.

In the last couple of years, most US states have enacted (or are in the process of enacting) criminal and civil penalties for selling products being advertised as “synthetic drugs.”

States like Virginia and New York have also tried to broaden the definition of Schedule I drugs and also demanded stricter punishments for the production, sale, and consumption of synthetic drugs.

In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which permanently placed many synthetic cannabinoids into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This was a year after the DEA used discretionary powers to temporarily schedule some of the substances found in synthetic cannabinoid products on an emergency basis.

How Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Marketed If They're Illegal?

While synthetic cannabinoids are illegal, they are usually labeled as incense and "not for human consumption," slipping past FDA regulation guidelines. However, ongoing legislation is putting a curb on this loophole.

Also note that this is an ongoing struggle, because new synthetic cannabinoid agonists keep surfacing all the time, and not all of these are classified as controlled substances. Manufacturers keep using different synthetic mixtures and continue to legally market their products.

Delta-8 THC From Hemp As a "Legal" Alternative to Dangerous Synthetic Cannabinoids

Delta-8 THC From Hemp As a "Legal" Alternative to Dangerous Synthetic Cannabinoids
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Delta-8 is an isomer of the main delta-9 THC compound. It exists naturally in very small quantities in the cannabis plant, and it has very similar intoxicating effects to delta-9 THC.

Many people are turning to delta-8 derived from hemp plants as "light weed" as it has the ability to produce a sense of euphoria and relaxation, without the feelings of nervousness or overstimulation that's often associated with marijuana use.

In states where THC is illegal, many are now turning to delta-8 from hemp. If you're looking for safe delta-8 THC products, always reference the company's third-party lab tests to verify what's in the product. Delta-8 THC isn't technically considered a synthetic cannabinoid as it's found in hemp crops naturally, but some states may have their own restrictions towards the cannabinoid.

It's also worth mentioning that while delta-8 isn't technically federally illegal, all THC isomers will break down to the same metabolites, which means you can fail a drug test.

Takeaway: Avoid Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are often improperly labeled as "natural" or "herbal." These substances can be dangerous, unpredictable, and addictive. They're not the same as cannabis products that are made from hemp plants with low amounts of THC.

Because synthetic cannabinoids react more strongly with the brain's cannabis receptors they are more potent than natural cannabis. This means it's easier to use too much and experience unpleasant and harmful effects. And the risk of addiction and withdrawal is also high.

Always look at a product's third-party lab test to verify the contents of your cannabis product to ensure safety and quality control measures are met. If you're looking for a legal means to experience a marijuana high, delta-8 THC derived from hemp is a safer and more dependable compound than reaching for K2 spice.


What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice, K2, and Black Mamba are packaged and branded as “natural” or “herbal” goods, but consumers perceive them to be “fake weed,” or a “legal” way to enjoy the psychotropic high associated with marijuana use that contains no traces of THC. They are made of dried plant material, such as hemp (which is legal in the United States), that has been treated with chemical ingredients to generate mind-altering effects when smoked.

What Are The Effects Of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

Since synthetic cannabinoids are meant to be more potent in the brain than natural cannabinoids, they may cause euphoria, relaxation, giggles, an increase in appetite, and extroversion. They can, however, result in loss of coordination, alterations in perception, paranoia, amnesia, and panic episodes.

What Are The Risks Of Synthetic Cannabinoids?

The problem with synthetic cannabis drugs is that we have no idea what's in them. These makers are not required to declare the active ingredients or follow FDA criteria because they are not labeled for consumption. When smoked, K2/spice replicates the effects of THC, cannabis's principal psychoactive ingredient. However, the side effects can be fatal. These negative effects range from nausea and vomiting to hallucinations, psychotic episodes, seizures, and death.

Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Legal?

Synthetic cannabis are prohibited. They initially contained drugs that were not prohibited by state or federal drug regulations since their risks were unknown. However, this is changing. President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act in 2012, which permanently classified numerous synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). 


  1. Pamplona, F. A., da Silva, L. R., & Coan, A. C. (2018). Potential clinical benefits of CBD-rich cannabis extracts over purified CBD in treatment-resistant epilepsy: observational data meta-analysis. Frontiers in neurology, 9, 759.
  2. Castellanos, D., Singh, S., Thornton, G., Avila, M., & Moreno, A. (2011). Synthetic cannabinoid use: a case series of adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 49(4), 347-349.Chicago
  3. Griffith, C., La France, B., & Griffith, H. (2019). How Does Synthetic Marijuana (K2) Mimic the Effects of Naturally Occurring Chemical Compound Found in THC?. International Journal of Collaborative Research on Internal Medicine & Public Health, 11(1), 869-877.Chicago
  4. Romo, Vanessa. "Police Arrest Third Suspect In New Haven Synthetic Marijuana Overdose Case." NPR, August 17, 2018. Accessed 27th November, 2021
  5. Gurney, S. M. R., Scott, K. S., Kacinko, S. L., Presley, B. C., & Logan, B. K. (2014). Pharmacology, toxicology, and adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoid drugs. Forensic Sci Rev, 26(1), 53-78.Chicago
  6. Spaderna, M., Addy, P. H. & D’Souza, D C. (2014). Spicing things up: Synthetic cannabinoids. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 228(4), 525–540.
  7. Hollister, L. E., & Gillespie, H. K. (1973). Delta‐8‐and delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol; Comparison in man by oral and intravenous administration. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 14(3), 353-357.Chicago
Jan Brandrup

M.Eng Electrical & Mechanical Jan Brandrup is a Denmark born leader who has actualized multiple of his entrepreneurial businesses to success. Committed to excellent standards of functional craftsmanship, his work spans globally from Scandinavia to South Africa, Turkey, Russia, the Middle Eas...

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